I was always just about to hike the Hancocks, but for some reason, it wouldn’t work out. It was starting to be some kind of joke, like I might even finish the Northeast 111 on one of those two rather uninspiring summits. Then one sunny day in late May, the stars aligned.
They’re nothing special, no offense. They’re a moderate hike, offer no great views compared to their neighbors and I’d go as far as saying they’re mostly hiked by people going for their White Mountains 48.
A few miles from the trailhead, there’s a first junction. On the left, Cedar Brook Trail leads to the summits. Straight ahead, Hancock Notch Trail leads elsewhere. The sign doesn’t indicate which trail leads to the peaks… Yep, I got lost there. I didn’t remember a junction on the map I checked out on the computer. There was actually another one. And of course, I didn’t bring a paper map because, well, I didn’t own one.
I had a 50/50 shot, and considering my experience, the bookies in London had me taking the right trail at great odds. Everything was on my side, yet I blew it.
I decided to go straight. From there, I hiked almost eight kilometers before accepting I was on the wrong trail. The whole hike, out and back, was supposed to be fifteen. My oversight was good for the stats on Strava and for sightseeing. It was also good for making me realize I can be stubborn like a mule sometimes. Like I didn’t know that already.
Anyways, I hiked the eight kilometers back to the junction and bagged the summits. First thing I did when I got home? I ordered a map.
I remember I was in a hotel room somewhere with my parents and my brother. It might’ve been in Bathurst, or maybe it was Matane. There was a big closet with sliding doors. There was probably popcorn ceiling too. I was kneeling in the closet, one of the doors was open and a roadmap of Quebec was laid out on the floor in front of me. Or maybe I was in the corner of the room and the map was laid out between the second bed and the wall, under the window. It must’ve been 20 years ago, probably more.
I studied the map, its roads, cities I didn’t know and will likely never visit. Quebec is a big province. So big it couldn’t fit on one side of the map, so when I was done with the first side, I flipped the map and started over with the other side. Just like that, and without necessarily wanting it, I learned about the cities and regions of Quebec and of any other area for which we had a map. I always liked maps.
Given my early interest for maps, it’s odd that I didn’t have one of the places I went hiking. It’s one of the essentials for any hiking. I think I have a slight dislike for material possessions, guitars, camera and outdoors gear excluded. I would look at a map on the computer before a hike and occasionally print one from CalTopo if I intended to use unmaintained trails, but I mostly relied on signs on the trails and my photographic memory of the pre-hike research. That’s until my memory failed me at the Hancocks.
On Saturday morning, we picked up a friend at Lincoln Woods and drove back to Hale Brook. What was supposed to be a backpack of Hale, Zealand and the three Bonds, turned into a traverse at the last minute to allow me to finish my Northeast 111 on Sunday. We quickly made our way to Hale, the first of five summits to be bagged on that chilly day.
At the first junction, before Zealand, our second target, we had a slight hesitation. Well, we knew where we were going. Maybe we just wanted to use the map. We located our position, identified the trail we needed to take and evaluated the elevation gain before the next summit. While we were at it, we had a quick bite.
Around Mount Guyot, there was another junction. We repeated the same drill while having lunch. We could see our last three summits of the day. Maybe looking at the map was an excuse to catch our breath, or one of those things you do at lunch on the trail. We did the same thing after West Bond, before ascending Mount Bond. All three of us gathered around the map, calculated the distance and evaluated the terrain. It went back in the bag and stayed there for the remainder of the 35km traverse.
And so the last of the 115 peaks would be Moriah, a far better mountain for a finish than either of the Hancocks. The outcome of the hike was never in doubt. A few of the 7 hikers with me had a GPS and looked at the map on it once in a while. It’s not a good ol’ paper map, but you see elevation lines on the screen and we still gathered around to look at it.
The closer I got to the summit, the more I knew I didn’t care about the list itself. I wasn’t thinking about the last peak and what it represented. Instead, I was looking back on all the hikes, short and long, easy and hard, and recalling every step of the journey, Hancocks included. On the ridge, I soaked in the views while the others prepared a surprise. I couldn’t identify all mountains, so I took out my map.
I got a patch and we had beer on the summit. We joked around for a while, put a big rock in someone’s pack – he didn’t notice until we were halfway down – and descended to the car. It was a good weekend.
I didn’t really care about finishing the list, but in hindsight, this improvised and last-minute outing was the only way to do it. Not having a definitive plan often makes for better adventures because it allows for freedom, creativity and improvisation.
There are no rules, no cut-off time, no corridor in which to run or specific trail to follow. There’s no registration at the start or podium at the end. You don’t track your time or wear a bib. That’s the beauty of it: you’re free to do your own thing however you choose to do it.
An idea sparks a project and then whatever happens next is a surprise. Maps are there to inspire and show the way, whether it’s on the computer, on the hood of a car or on an old rotting log. They’re also a good excuse for taking a breather, a bite, a side-trail to check something out or simply to identify mountains and landmarks. And hopefully, help go in the right direction at a junction and avoid hiking 16km by mistake ever again! Let’s see what treasures they lead to next.
Hale, Zealand, West Bond, Bond, Bondcliff
-This is a traverse, so it requires two cars. Hitchhiking is possible, but likely not easy since both trailheads are not on the same road and are separated by 50km (31 miles). Hale Brook Trailhead is on a dirt road that’s closed in winter.
-Park one car at Lincoln Woods Visitor Center and drive to Hale Brook Trailhead on Zealand road, from where you should start. Hiking from north to south reduces the elevation gain and the hike ends with an easy flat trail for 8km (5 miles), which is good when it’s dark.
-Ascend Hale via the Hale Brook Trail. From there, take Lend-A-Hand and Twinway trails to Guyot (Zealand is on the way). From Guyot, the Bonds stand out to the south and the trail is well marked. The Bondcliff trail will lead all the way down to the Wilderness Trail. Bond and Bondcliff are on the trail, and West Bond is a 1 mile out-and-back.
-The Wilderness Trail later becomes the Lincoln Woods Trail. Both are flat – it used to be a railway – and lead to the Lincoln Woods Parking lot.
Mileage: 34.6 km (21.5 miles)
Elevation gain: 1,676 m (5,500 ft)
There are plenty of ways to do this one. The stats below are for an out-and-back of the Stony Brook Trail.
Mileage: 16.6 km (10.3 miles)
Elevation gain: 948 m (3,110 ft)